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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Otherworld Cattle

Hilda Ellis Davidson

Few folklorists and or those interested in early religion pay much serious attention to the cow. This is a pity, since the symbol of cattle and of the milk they provide has been enormously important in the past, particularly in the cults of goddesses. In Ancient Egypt the first sacred cows were the wild ones in the Delta marshes, a symbol of abundant life and regarded as creatures of the Otherworld. Later the sky itself was depicted as a great cow, her belly speckled with stars, identified with the goddess Hathor, who each dawn gave birth to the sun, the young bull-calf. By the eleventh dynasty cows with a special patterned hide were regarded as incarnations of Hathor, and at Memphis there was a special white cow which represented her. The milk of the cows kept in Hathor’s temple was a link between the Pharaohs and the gods, for royal babies were fed on it, and it was Hathor ‘s milk which was said to restore the dead Pharaoh to new life in the Otherworld. Again in Mesopotamia the powerful goddess Nimhursag presided over a temple dairy, providing milk for royal children. Among the Greeks there were evidently cattle sacred to Hyperion, the sun-god, since in Homer we find Odysseus warning his men against slaughtering any beast from his seven herds for food, and they paid dearly for their disobedience. These are Otherworld cattle, said in Book XII of the Odyssey not to be subject to natural death. Thus the idea of special cattle, associated with the Otherworld, was a familiar one. They might be singled out by unusual colouring, or because they were larger and finer than normal animals, or they might belong to a special herd. In India today goddesses are often described as cows, and milk and milk products offered to the gods.

Rosmerta 13k

Rosmerta and her churn from Housesteads
(Copyright Norman Fahy).

Similar ideas, though of a less exalted nature, can be traced in northern Europe, and were apparently familiar to the Indo-Europeans. They have left traces in our popular traditions and folklore, particularly in the British Isles and Scandinavia, where dairy-farming and the making of butter and other milk products has for centuries played a major part in people’s lives; they provided an essential part of the diet as well as rich food for pleasurable eating. The position was different in southern Europe; in areas around the Mediterranean there was little good grazing land, and the warmer climate made it difficult to transport fresh milk to the towns, while olive oil was available to replace butter. The Romans regarded milk as fit only for infants and invalids, although cheese was made on the farms and was regularly supplied to the army. Consequently the Roman fertility goddesses took little interest in milk, and are not associated with the dairy. In northern Europe, however,this was closely linked with the goddesses, although this has tended to go unrecognized. There is a striking carving of the goddess Rosmerta, for instance, on an altar found at Housesteads on the Roman Wall, where she seems undoubtedly to be working with her plunger turning milk into butter. The object beside her is very similar to the wooden churn with iron hoops still used on farms in northern England at the beginning of this century. We need to realize the tremendous importance of milk and butter in earlier times and the way in which it influenced customs and legends. There was good grazing land in the Midlands, and memories of Otherworld cattle certainly exist there if we take the trouble to look for them. Nowadays milk comes in the bottle or the carton all the year round, and we have no idea of the excitement and eagerness with which people greeted the coming of summer, after the austerities of winter and Lent. By May the calves, who had taken all the milk, were at last separated from their mothers, and milk and cream were available again. In Tudor times the young people paired off in the surrounding woods on the evening before May Day, a custom regarded as scandalous by the Puritans, although in fact it often resulted in respectable betrothals and was not disapproved of by their families. We know from some Elizabethan plays that on May morning it was customary for the couples to visit nearby farms and feast on such delicacies as milk laced with rum, syllabubs (for which the cow was milked directly into wine, port or sherry), sour milk and curds with cream and sugar, junkets, and cream cakes.

In areas where the cattle were moved up to summer pastures at the end of April, as happened in Scandinavia and parts of the British Isles, this too marked the beginning of summer and was something to look forward to with excitement. A number of the farm workers moved out with the cattle, and were away all summer, working hard to provide supplies of butter for the winter ahead, and making their own amusements and pastimes in their spare time. A Norwegian folklorist, Svale Solheim, has produced a fascinating book on the rich traditions and legends associated with the move to the saetter, the place where the summer months would be spent. He has many stories collected from individuals whose families regularly took part in these migrations, including tales of Otherworld cattle belonging to the ‘underearth’ people, who are not unlike our fairy folk.

Part of the rich lore associated with work in the dairy was due to another factor which we now tend to forget: the extreme difficulty of obtaining butter in the old upright plunger churn. The workers did not always keep their dairy equipment scrupulously clean, and it was all too easy for things to go wrong, so that there are countless tales of witchcraft practised by some malicious neighbour which prevented the butter from coming. The folklore archives in Dublin have many tales of the dangers of May Day, the time when the cream might be stolen by witchcraft. Various methods were practised, such as taking the froth from a river at the point where two or three streams met, uttering such words as ‘All for myself and nothing for the rest of them’, crossing the boundary of a neighbour’s farm to gather the dew and sweeping it up with the spancel used to secure the cow’s legs while milking, or taking the first water of the day from a well on a neighbour’s farm. There is no doubt that such practices were actually tried out, and people who were seen on May morning going about their lawful occasions might well be accused of such crimes. There are many legends too of women taking on the shape of hares in order to steal milk or prevent the production of batter.

If we can think ourselves back into such a background, remembering that passions might run high when the prosperity and perhaps the very survival of a family depended on the successful production of butter and cream, then the legends of Otherworld cows become more understandable. Solheim’s exhaustive study from Norway includes numbers of rituals, spells, prayers, and ‘lucky’ practices to obtain milk and butter. These went on from the time when they fixed a good day for the move to the mountains, and made the journey with the cows, overjoyed to be released from their dark sheds after the long winter, and continued until they returned to the home farm. The spells and practices which they used are a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs, some of them undoubtedly very old. In the woods and mountain pastures where the men and children looked after the cattle during the day, while the women worked in the dairy, they were very conscious of the supernatural folk who might sometimes be encountered, and felt it was essential to keep on good terms with them as far as possible. For example, they might stop by a great stone which they passed on their route to the pastures and greet the dweller there by name, perhaps making small offerings like a little milk from the leading cow released on to the ground, or buttermilk poured on to small knolls or into holes in the earth. They encouraged insects and small creatures such as mice or harmless snakes because they were good omens for the welfare of the cattle, while they cut crosses or what seem to be ancient sun symbols on the vessels in which the milk was collected, or put yellow flowers such as buttercups or marigolds into them to increase the yield of butter.

Tales have been recorded from women who had heard them from some older member of the family such as mother or grandmother, indicating a widespread belief in Otherworld cattle. For instance, a dairymaid might be approached by a strange woman and asked whether she would do the milking for her that evening, to enable her to attend a funeral, or perhaps go to a feast. The girl asks where the herd can be found, and is told that they are close at hand, and that vessels will be put out ready for the milking. The cows, she discovers, are very fine animals, the kind every farmer would long to possess, and as a reward for her help, the dairymaid may be offered one of them, which becomes a family treasure. If she is foolish enough to refuse, because she is afraid of dealings with ‘underearth’ people, the woman will call it back, and it disappears with the rest.

Such animals might also be seen wandering in the forest, but if any attempt were made to take possession of them or milk them, they would vanish. However one method of obtaining them was to throw steel over them. There is a Swedish tale of a girl who saw a strange cow in her herd, and flung her sewing at it to drive it back home. Her steel needle was in the sewing, however, and the supernatural woman who owned the cow then appeared, lamenting that now she could not take the animal back, and asking if the girl would give her a lamb or a good neckcloth in return. Both Norwegian and Swedish women claimed to have heard the supernatural owners of the cattle calling their beasts home in the evening, and quoted their calling songs in which they summoned their cows by name.

The colour of these Otherworld cattle is often described, but this varies in different districts, and Solheim thought this might be due to new unfamiliar strains being introduced which seemed exotic to those who encountered them. Occasionally bulls from the Otherworld herds were thought to mate with ordinary cows, and the resulting calves would usually be fine animals, although there were some cases reported of misshapen or tailless beasts as the offspring of such unions. Fairy cows may also be found in Irish tradition. One such cow nourished St Brigid as an infant, the legendary Abbess of Kildare, who seems to have inherited pre-Christian traditions of the goddess Brigit. The saint was closely associated with cattle and milk. Her mother worked as a dairymaid, and her daughter was said to be born as she stepped across the threshold on her way back from the dairy, carrying a vessel of milk. The baby could not thrive on ordinary cow’s milk, so her foster-father, skilled in magical lore, procured an Otherworld cow, a white animal with red ears, for her. Brigid may be seen pictured in churches with her cow, said to accompany her on her visits to farms on the eve of her festival, when a sheaf of hay might be left out for it. White cattle with red ears were also possessed by that impressive figure the Hag of Beware, thought to have once been a powerful local divinity.

Cattle of this type certainly existed in England from Roman times, and one herd of such beasts, kept isolated for centuries, still survives at Chillingham in Northumberland. Whitehead, who made a special study of them, is disposed to accept the theory that they are descended from white cattle brought in by the Romans for processions and sacrificial ceremonies, since the native British cattle were mostly black; this might account for their association with the supernatural world. In Wales supernatural cattle are said to come from a fairy realm beneath the water of certain lakes. The best known tale is that of the fairy bride who makes a marriage with a farmer, but returns to the lake when certain conditions are broken - often unwittingly - by her husband. She brings her herd of wonderful cattle out of the lake with her, and calls them back into the water when she leaves for good. The lady of Llyn y Fan Fach in Dyfed is said to have left descendants who were famous physicians. The tale was not recorded in print until 1861, but it was known to a number of informants, and included a calling song like those from Norway and Sweden, when the mistress of the supernatural cattle summoned each in turn by name.

Such calling songs must have been used in England, and I should be most grateful to anyone who can give me information about them. The nineteenth century poet Jean Ingelow brought a romanticized version of such a song into her poem ‘The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire’:

From the clovers lift your head;
Come uppe Whitefoot, come uppe Lightfoot,
Come uppe Jetty, rise and follow
Jetty, to the milking shed.

However I have been unable to find any songs of her own time which might have inspired the verses.

In England we find a widespread tradition in the midlands and the north of bountiful cows of special beauty, yielding large quantities of milk, who come from the Otherworld and allow people to milk them until the greed or cruelty of certain individuals drives them away. The most famous example is that of Mitchell’s Fold in south Shropshire, which was carefully recorded by Charlotte Burne, who found that in the 1880s many people in the neighbourhood were familiar with the legend. It was said that in a time of famine a beautiful white cow appeared, and anyone might come and milk her, providing only one vessel was brought; this would be filled, whatever its size and shape. All went well until a mean old witch brought along a sieve, and milked the cow dry. Various versions of this tale are found in many areas in Shropshire and further north, and in some places large bones have been produced as proof of the story. Sometimes the cow died, sometimes she vanished after stamping her foot in rage and leaving a mark on a rock. In Warwickshire she was said to turn into a destructive animal, the Dun Cow, finally slain by Guy of Warwick. There is also a variant of this legend from Wales, telling how a white cow travelled widely, leaving calves in many places from which later cows were said to be descended, until at last people in the Vale of Towy wanted to kill her, and she vanished. The site at Mitchell’s Fold where the cow was said to have appeared is some distance from any habitation, marked by a ring of standing stones, now incomplete, and there are other stone circles recorded not far away. There is an impressive view of hills on every side,and the place would form a suitable centre for people from surrounding villages.

The concept of an Otherworld cow who brings benefits is found in India, where Gabrielle Ferro-Luzzi collected over 400 legends about the self-milking cow, The basic tale was about a mysterious cow which emptied its udder regularly over an anthill or cairn, beneath which was afterwards discovered a sacred lingam or the image of a god, whereupon the local rajah built a temple to hold the divine symbol. The writer’s main interest was in the different ways in which a tradition might develop, but her material also shows how the cow can be a symbol of divine bounty. A parallel from England can be found in a strange legend of St Kenelm told in a fourteenth century poem from the collection in the Southern English Legendary. Here Kenelm was a boy-king murdered by his wicked sister. His body was not found until at last a white cow belonging to a widow was observed to spend the whole day in a certain valley, away from the rest of the herd. The cow took no food, but remained ‘fair and round’, while its yield of milk was greater than all the others. As result of this, together with a letter in English miraculously delivered to the Pope, the body of the child martyr was discovered. There are other legends of cows or oxen which reveal where a saint shall be buried or a church built, by refusing to stop except on one particular site. The attractive Norfolk saint, St Wistan, said to be a king’s son who worked as a farm labourer, was drawn to Bawburgh after death by two bullocks which he had reared. They miraculously crossed a river, and created two healing wells where they stopped to piss on the way. Walston is shown on a roodscreen in the church at Barnham Broom with the two animals at his feet. Several northern divinities also possessed oxen, used for ploughing. The Celtic goddess Brigit had two, who gave her warning of cattle-stealing anywhere in Ireland, while the Danish goddess Gefion, a powerful character, used oxen to plough round a tract of land in Sweden which became the island of Zealand. In Wales the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach called her oxen back into the lake with the cows, and the marks of the plough they had been drawing were said to be visible for six miles. Indeed in Norse mythology there is one account of the creation of the world beginning from a primeval cow, whose name Audhumla is thought to mean ‘Rich, hornless cow’. She existed before the gods along with the giant Ymir, whom she nourished, and she licked the primeval ice-blocks until a being called Buri emerged, from whom the gods were descended. Some think that this is an Indo-European origin myth, and whether this is so or not, it reminds us once again of the great and holy significance of the cow for our ancestors in the North. It is sad to think that this is something now wholly lost, with robot milking, commercialism of dairy farming on a huge scale, and the tendency to regard the cow as nothing more than a machine to yield milk, condemned to a short and not particularly happy life. I set out to find out more about Otherworld cattle because of the importance milk possessed in the cults of the northern goddesses, but soon found they were worthy of investigation in their own right. I commend the study of cattle legends to readers of At the Edge as a part of their own heritage, and I shall be very glad to hear of any relevant local traditions.

Further reading:
C. Phythian-Adams: ‘Milk and Soot’ in The Pursuit of Urban History, D. Fraser and A. Sutcliffe (eds.), London 1983.
P. Lysaght: ‘Beltaine’ in Boundaries and Thresholds, H.R.E. Davidson (ed.), Stroud 1992.
K.D. Whitehead: The Ancient White Cattle of Britain, London 1953.
J. Wood: ‘The Fairy Bride Legend in Wales’ Folklore Vol.103, pp55-72, 1992.
G.E. Ferro-Luzzi: The Self-Milking Cow and the Bleeding Lingam, Wiesbaden, 1987.

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated January 2015